Fossil collections manager

Carl Mehling, Fossils Collections Manager
Picture by Patrick James Miller
Date:1 June 2011 Tags:, ,

Behind a secure, unlabelled door in a back hallway of the American Museum of Natural History, Carl Mehling catalogues fossils in the Big Bone Room. The area houses more than 200 bones from more than 45 species of dinosaur on open shelves and in locked cabinets. It is always kept at approximately 18 degrees and 50 per cent humidity because “small existing cracks can grow bigger over time”, says Mehling, who studied zoology and palaeontology, and started at the museum as a volunteer 21 years ago. He also participates in digs; on one trip, he became the first person to lay eyes on fossil embryo skin while examining eggshells at a sauropod nesting site in Argentina. “Skin is hard to find because the fossil record favours hard parts,” he says. “That site is the only place fossil embryo skin has ever turned up.” – Erin McCarthy

Age: 42
Years on job: 16

1, 2 Diplodocus longus bones

These bones – respectively, the posterior dorsal and presacral vertebrae of a 30-metre herbivore – are from the first fossil dinosaur collected by the museum in 1897. Written on the fossils is “AMNH FARB 223’, their catalogue number within the museum’s fossil reptile collection. This ID allows Mehling to access information such as when and where the bones were found. “Without its data, a fossil loses much of its scientific value,” he says. “It’s just a pretty rock.”

3 Barosaurus bone

This real cervical bone from the 26-metre Barosaurus was used to make a cast for the museum’s display skeleton. “We often favour casts because they’re faster and safer to mount,” Mehling says. “Plus, unmounted specimens are easier for researchers to study.” Up to 200 researchers visit the collection each year; those who want to move a fossil from its location must fill out a yellow tag. “One part of the tag follows the specimen, and one stays,” Mehling says, “so we know who took it and who we need to talk to when we don’t find it.”

4 Cast skull

Before the museum’s Apatosaurus skeleton went on display 106 years ago, it was missing a head. So researchers sculpted one using this cast skull, from other sauropods such as the Camarasaurus, as a guide. “It was like putting a cat’s head on a dog’s body,” Mehling says. AMNH kept the model after a more accurate cast was made. “We’re obsessed with the past,” he says. “Even our own interpretations get archived.”